Your Picture Is Worth 1,000 Minutes (And A Few Sins)

I’ve been reading here and there about the best ingredients for cooking up a successful consumer Internet experience.

For over a decade I’ve referred the the Seven Deadly Sins as guideposts for anyone attempting to create content that baits, engages, pays off, sparks debate and causes people to return. It’s easily misunderstood, however, and not all the “Sins” need be called into play. (I left one out a couple years ago when trying to relate the principles to a group of people trying to become more persuasive Tweeters.)

One thing in particular keeps coming back to mind, however, when considering the question of creating great consumer online experiences.

It was mid-’96 and I was editor of Digital City Philadelphia (AOL’s city guide) and we were just getting our footing, figuring out what people in the tri-state area would be interested in doing online. The game at the time was “minutes” — how long could you keep people online, their modems latched to AOL — since customers (members) were paying by the hour. This was a very focusing metric; yes, we were challenged with driving traffic and view to advertisers, too, but advertisers did not much care about minutes… heck, they barely knew what “online” was at the time.

So back to getting our footing: this was in the days before pictures on AOL. That is, most imagery was limited to bitmaps and icons (except for in “download libraries” where you could get clipart and some stock images among other similar stuff). It was not pretty. But it was obvious that images on Usenet and elsewhere (some of the adult nature)  were driving attention.

Cool, so how to make that work for users of DCI Philadelphia…

Turns out there was a huge barrier to entry when trying to get people to upload and share their photos: digital cameras were scarce and cost upwards of $600; even scanning your Kodak moments at the local camera shop or Kinkos was very expensive – prohibitively so.

So I hatched a simple plan to offer everyone online the opportunity to have their pictures scanned for free if they agreed to allow us to put the digital nuggets in photo libraries we created to drive activity among “neighbours” of similar interests.

We posted a promotion for the service on the front page of the site, and the deluge began. Not only were piles of pictures coming by mail but people were finding us (and that was not exactly easy), hand delivering their piles pictures.

The scanning operation became a full time activity for several college interns. But the gratifying thing was the feedback. So many people — once they grasped that this was not a joke and truly free – were so appreciative. I was actually a bit surprised. But I should not have been; we simply tapped a pent up desire at the right time and made it easy for the teapot to whistle. The value we got in return I’m certain was dramatically more than what was put in.

While this example may tap several of the Deadly Sins, the important thing to remember is to find a need, particularly one that is clouded or obscured, and knock down walls to over-deliver, out-deliver, excessively deliver like mad.

And try not to be prideful if you succeed.

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